It’s no secret that what we eat has a huge influence over how we feel. It’s also no secret that we’re witnessing a worrisome rise in food allergies. (Federal data shows food allergies in kids shot up almost 50 percent between 1997 and 2001.)

As a result, an ever-growing number of people no longer eat certain foods – many of which are major staples of the American diet. Some people don’t eat gluten, others don’t eat meat, a few don’t eat peanuts and a small tribe doesn’t eat anything that’s been cooked.

All of this adds up to a lot of head scratching for those of us making dinner.

And since these aren’t the type of diets people adopt for a couple weeks to lose weight – rather they require long-term lifestyle changes – our friends and family members who want to change their diets to improve their health really need our support.

And if we want to be supportive, the first thing we need to do is figure out what they do and don’t eat.

To help sort through what these different health food diets mean, in general, I’ve created this short guide.

Vegetarian

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, tofu, tempeh, seitan, cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, eggs, honey

DOESN’T EAT: Meat, chicken, fish, seafood

WHY: Some vegetarians choose to avoid meat because of concerns about animal cruelty and environmental degradation. Others eat this way because studies show people who eat less meat live longer and have fewer diseases.

MORE INFO: Maine Vegetarian Food Festival, June 7, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., East End Elementary School, Portland, www.maineanimal coalition.org/vegetarian- food-festival 

Vegan

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, non-dairy milk, tofu, tempeh, seitan

DOESN’T EAT: Meat, chicken, fish, seafood, cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, eggs, honey

WHY: While many vegans avoid animal products because of their beliefs around animal cruelty, a growing number eat this way because studies show eating a diet rich in plant foods significantly lowers our risk for diseases such as cancer, stroke, diabetes and dementia.

MORE INFO: Maine Vegan Meet-up, www.meetup.com/Meatless-Mainers 

Plant-based

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, non-dairy milk, tofu, tempeh, seitan

DOESN’T EAT: Meat, chicken, fish, seafood, cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, eggs, honey

WHY: Very similar to vegans – but with no emphasis on ethics and an additional focus on avoiding vegan junk foods (and sometimes added oils and sweeteners) – this group of eaters is motivated by studies showing the more plant-foods we eat the better our health.

MORE INFO: The Healthy Living Group at Whole Foods Market in Portland often focuses on plant-based cooking, 774-7711. 

Pescatarian

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, tofu, tempeh, seitan, cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, eggs, honey, fish, seafood

DOESN’T EAT: Meat, chicken

WHY: As vegetarians who eat fish, pescatarians essentially eat a Mediterranean diet, which studies show is associated with a longer life span and lower rates of disease.

MORE INFO: Salt + Sea Community Supported Fishery, saltandsea.me or 415-9388

Semivegetarian

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, tofu, tempeh, seitan, non-dairy milk, cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, eggs, honey, fish, seafood, meat, chicken

DOESN’T EAT: They eat everything, but meat, fish, seafood, eggs, milk, butter and cheese are consumed in strict moderation – such as once a day or once a week.

WHY: People tend to choose this eating style when they want the health benefits of a vegan or vegetarian diet, but don’t want to totally give up animal-based foods.

MORE: Pepperclub & The Good Egg Cafe, 78 Middle St., Portland, 772-0531, which offers vegan, vegetarian and meat-based entrees. 

Gluten-free

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, some grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, tofu, most tempeh, most cheeses, milk, most yogurts, butter, eggs, honey, unprocessed fish, unprocessed seafood, unprocessed meat

DOESN’T EAT: Gluten-containing grains – primarily wheat, rye and barley – commonly found in bread, pastries, pasta and other processed foods, such as soy sauce and French fries. Spelt, a grain containing gluten, is avoided by many people who eat gluten-free. However, some people who are otherwise gluten-free find they can tolerate spelt.

WHY: People with celiac disease trigger a massive autoimmune response from their bodies when they eat gluten. A much larger number of people eat gluten-free because they find it alleviates digestive problems, joint pain and other ailments. While there are many compelling personal stories of people healed by going gluten-free, there remains little science to support the theory of gluten sensitivity.

MORE INFO: Portland Maine Celiac/DH Support Group, 409-5677 or info@csachapter88.com and on Facebook 

Gluten-free, Dairy-free

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, some grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, tofu, most tempeh, non-dairy milk, eggs, honey, unprocessed fish, unprocessed seafood, unprocessed meat

DOESN’T EAT: Anything containing gluten or dairy, which includes the majority of conventionally processed and prepared foods.

WHY: Similar to a gluten-free diet, the gluten-free, dairy-free diet (or casein-free as it’s sometimes called) is often fed to children with autism spectrum disorders. Mothers across the country swear it works, but few mainstream medical studies agree.

MORE: Bam-Bam Bakery, 267 Commercial St., Portland, 899-4100, is an all gluten-free bakery that offers many dairy-free items. 

Nut-free, corn-free, soy-free, etc.

EATS AND DOESN’T EAT: Depends on the allergy

WHY: A response to medically diagnosed food allergies, these diets vary depending on what foods trigger an allergy. The most common food allergens are peanuts, cow’s milk, eggs, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

MORE INFO: Parents of Children with Food Allergies Support Group meets the fourth Wednesday of the month at Maine Medical Center; call ahead 854-1622. And the FARE Walk/Fun Run for Food Allergy, 2 p.m. Sept. 7, Payson Park, Portland, www.foodallergywalk.org/portlandme2014 

Raw

EATS: Fruits, vegetables, seaweed, grains (sprouted), nuts, seeds

DOESN’T EAT: Anything that’s been cooked; typically no meat, chicken, dairy products or eggs, however a small number of people who follow a raw food diet eat raw animal products.

WHY: Raw foodists believe cooking creates toxins and destroys the vital energy and nutrients in food. The medical research surrounding raw diets is limited, with a handful of studies showing that raw vegan diets are associated with improved health and a handful of others finding that such diets may be inadequate.

MORE INFO: Girl Gone Raw classes, Portland, girlgoneraw.com 

Macrobiotic

EATS: Fruits, most vegetables, seaweed, grains, beans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, tofu, tempeh, seitan, non-dairy milk, fish

DOESN’T EAT: Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants, cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, eggs, honey, seafood, meat, chicken

WHY: Macrobiotics find that balancing the yin and yang aspects of food and centering their meals around cooked, whole grains and vegetables brings them greater health and vitality. People diagnosed with cancer often hear about this diet as a way to boost their health, but there has been little medical research into whether or not it is effective.

MORE INFO: Five Seasons Cooking School, 87 St. Lawrence St., Portland, www.fiveseasonscookingschool.net; and Maine Macrobiotic Potlucks, mainemacro@gmail.com 

Avery Yale Kamila is a free writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

avery.kamila@gmail.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila